Politics in the age of silver bullets and one-trick ponies


“Simple solutions from simple people.” This is how one of my graduate school professors used to deride flavor-of-the-month or single-minded ideas proposed by many politicians, interest groups, and advocates for a cause. He was correct. There is a penchant in business, and now in politics these days, to believe that there are a simple solutions to our problems and that all that needs to be done is to do one thing and poof, the problem is solved. The reality is that there are no silver bullets and those who believe they exist are at best one-trick ponies who are conflating marketing and ideology with governance and public policy.

The world of business and marketing is all about silver bullets. Marketing is selling simple solutions to our complex problems. Can’t lose weight? Try this pill or this diet. Unpopular? buy this car, use this toothpaste, or wear this overpriced clothing with a logo on it. Conversely, managers and leaders look for the silver bullet to solve a problem, sell a product, or save a company. They believe there is a “killer app,” feature, or marketing solution that will do it all.

Even the art of management has been reduced to silver bullets and one trick pony ideas. Just consider some of the titles of leading business books over the last few years. There is the One Minute Manager, apparently a guide for those lacking time to think. Then there is Emotional Management for Project Managers–a book for those who do not or cannot think and need to do it with emotion. Conversely there is The Intuitive Mind: Profiting from the Power of Your Sixth Sense and A Sixth Sense for Project Management–books with titles that seems to conjure up your inner clairvoyant or ESP to be a successful manager. And then there are silly titles such as The Lazy Project Manager, Winnie-the Pooh on Management, The Zen Leader, and of course Managing for Dummies, Project Management for Dummies, and Leadership for Dummies. I guess you do not have to be an Einstein, or even close, to be a successful manager.

We also have six sigma, balanced scorecard, dashboards, and strategic management. All these are supposed to be tools that solve all of our management problems. MBA programs drool over Machiavelli’s Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as models of successful management, believing that good leaders are like ruthless military or political leaders and that you need to have a my way or highway approach to management. And then there are those dreary books by Jack Welch, Donald Trump. and other former corporate CEOs telling you how you can replicate what they did, even though GE actually underperformed according to many analysts (and did not pay taxes and had a record of serious pollution) or that’s Trump’s success comes the old-fashioned way (he takes over his father’s successful real estate company) and his companies have filed for bankruptcy four times. For that he deserves to be fired! Instead, he has his own show telling others how to manage their businesses.

All of these books, programs, and leaders promise the same thing–some simple technique that will make you an effective manager. They all seem to say that the gateway to success is adopting their simple single technique and it alone will transform you into a great manager and improve the performance of your business, non-profit, or government agency. It is a surprise that they do not claim it will cure baldness or help you lose 20 pounds–much like the old quack miracle elixirs of the old days.

It’s bad enough that business is so simple minded, but politics has increasingly turned down that road. Yes there has always been zealots who told what Plato called the “big lie”–proposing a single comprehensive solution to solving all of our complex social, economic, or political problems. Hitler of course was the most extreme–the Jews were the problem and their extermination was the solution. But less extreme than that, over the course of American history racial minorities, communists, and more recently, welfare queens, immigrants, and gays and lesbians have been singled out as the cause America’s budget deficits, economic woes, or decline in morality, thereby demanding simple solutions such as elimination of welfare, building armed walls around our borders, or banning same-sex marriage.

It is not enough to single out one group to persecute as a cure for our political problems, There are also the silver bullet solutions, often proposed by those of the political right these days. (Remember when they criticized liberals as simply wanting to throw money at a problem?) Cutting taxes is the best example. It seems no matter what the problem is, cutting taxes is the solution for some. Unemployment too high? Cut taxes. Spending too much or deficits too high? Cut taxes. Government waste? Cut taxes. Government running a surplus (as it was during the end of the Clinton era)? Cut taxes. Need to lure business to the state? Cut taxes. Cutting taxes cannot be the answer to all these questions or problems. Cutting taxes is not public policy idea, it is a marketing gimmick.

During the 2012 presidential debates Herman Cain proposed “9-9-9″ as his tax plan. He was quickly followed by Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich who also proposed catchy but generally meaningless and impractical tax ideas. Michele Bachmann talked of wanting to reenact Reagan’s tax cuts, whatever she meant by that. None of these ideas were really well thought out, researched, or evidence-backed theories. They were simple-minded slogans to sell a candidate or a cause, not solve a problem. They are ideas proposed by zealots who have confused sloganeering and ideology with thoughtful public policy deliberation.

Look beyond taxes to see other examples of this. The gun debate is a great example. More guns mean less crime and more personal security for the NRA types. Privatization and choice is the solution to failing schools or bloated uncompetitive bureaucracies. Deregulation will cure business competitiveness. And, until very recently, arresting more people for longer periods of time is the solution to our drug problem. Less anyone think that Republicans, Tea Partiers, and conservatives have a monopoly on being one-trick ponies with silver bullets. Spending more money alone will not solve underachievement problems with students, and banning guns will not solve all the problems surrounding crime, suicide, and domestic abuse.

Legal philosopher Lon Fuller once declared that many of society’s problem are “polycentric.” By that he meant there was not one center or problem but that often social ills have many interconnected causes and problems, demanding complex solutions with many parts. The reality is that except in the movies where a silver bullet kills the zombie or gets the bad guy, there are no silver bullets. There are no single solutions or one-size fits all fixes that can solve all of our problems. For those interested in improving governance and making more effective public policy, this is an important point worth remembering.

Note: My latest blog was originally published on August 22, 2013, in Politics in Minnesota where it and other good political news can be found.